Skip Navigation

Main sections

Skip section navigation (navigation may have changed)

Due to the lapse in government funding, only websites supporting excepted functions will be updated unless otherwise funded. As a result, the information on this website may not be up to date and the agency will not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.

Updates regarding government operating status and resumption of normal operations can be found at

Section navigation logo


hand spraypainting

Getting involved with criminal activity is the important difference between gangs and teen clubs, cliques, and other social groups.

Club, clique, or crew — what’s the difference?
What is gang life really like?
Why do girls join gangs?
How to stay out of gangs
What if you’re already in a gang — can you get out?
How do you leave a gang?
More resources

Club, clique, or crew — what’s the difference? arrow top

Hanging out with a regular group of friends can be a lot of fun, provide a sense of belonging, and boost your self-esteem. You might run with a crowd that you know through school, your neighborhood, or through mutual friends. Your group might go by a specific name, meet up regularly at a favorite hangout, and even use hand signs, symbols, or dress a certain way to show that you are loyal to each other.

So what makes your group of friends different from a gang? Getting involved with criminal activity is the important difference between gangs and teen clubs, cliques, and other social groups.

Gangs are a concern because they are responsible for much of the serious violence in the United States. If gangs are active where you live, you know how they create a climate of fear and stir up trouble in your community.

Still, the number of teens joining gangs is on the rise, and gangs are beginning to pop up in smaller towns and communities outside the inner city. Gangs used to be a concern of boys only. But nowadays, many girls are joining gangs or hanging out with boy gang members. Knowing the truth about gangs and gang life will help you to stay safe and make smart choices about the friendships you make and the people you date as you get older.

What is gang life really like? arrow top

You probably see and hear about gang life on TV, in the movies, or in the music you listen to. Sometimes the media and entertainment industry make gang life out to be thrilling, exciting, and even glamorous. Actually, teen gang members spend most of their time doing what other kids their age do — going to school, watching TV, hanging out, eating, and sleeping. Not so exciting, is it?

But gang life is more than just hanging out with friends. Gang life is dangerous. Gang life can also get you arrested, or worse.

  • Gang members are 60 times more likely to be killed than others. Sixty times!
  • Gang members — and girls who hang out with gang members — are more likely to be exposed to crime, sexual abuse, drug use, conflict, fights, guns, and other weapons, putting themselves at greater risk for injury and even death.
  • Girl gang members are more likely to commit crimes than teens who are not involved with gangs. U.S. prisons are filled with women who got their start as teen gang members.
  • Most times, girls who want to join a gang must “prove” themselves through an initiation ritual that can involve getting beaten up or having sexual encounters with gang members.

Why do girls join gangs? arrow top

top green border

Below are different ways real teen girls got involved with gangs. See if you can think of a better way each girl could have dealt with her situation.

Girl with dark hair and bangs.To feel a sense of belonging
"I've always been called a 'troublemaker.' My parents even tell me I’m no good. When I first started hanging out with a gang, it was the first time I felt like I belonged, like I mattered."
Face of a teenage Asian girl.To identify with people like them
"My family came to the United States when I was 10. My parents came here so I could have a better life. But, they can't relate to what it’s like to be an American teen. It was hard for me to fit in at school. So I started hanging out with this crew who are like me — they understand where I'm coming from."
A surly looking girl with auburn hair.To feel powerful
"I've always been the kid that's picked on and made fun of. I started hanging out with this really tough group of girls. They're mean, and now people are afraid of me. They don't pick on me anymore."
Face of an African American girl.For excitement
"I was bored after school. I was looking for something to do — a thrill. Funny thing is, most of the time, hanging out with my homegirls is boring, too."
Girl with very curly hair.To feel safe
"Where I live there's a lot of hate between different racial groups. I don't know why — there just is. There's a lot of violence — you have to find a way to look out for yourself. I hang out with people like me to feel safe."
Blonde teenage girl.To get money; to get basic needs
"My mom works two jobs to make ends meet. She makes sure me and my brother and sister get what we need — but there's not much left over for things like nice clothes, music and stuff. One day, this girl in my school had this necklace — it was real gold. She always had nice things, and I wanted nice things too. So I started hanging out with her, even though I knew she hung out with gang members."
bottom green border

How to stay out of gangs arrow top

  • Get involved in a organization, like Boys & Girls Clubs of America, 4-H club, YMCA or a group organized through your community or a local church. People who care about you and want to see you succeed in life run these types of agencies. Some offer a safe place to hang out and have fun with other teens. Some can link you to activities or programs that you might be interested in. Some will help you to develop your talents and skills. Most can help you when you have a problem or if you are in trouble.
  • Get involved in school. Sports, drama, music, student government, clubs, volunteer opportunities — after-school programs offer a lot. If you aren’t sure where to go, talk with a trusted teacher or counselor, who can direct you to an after-school activity that’s right for you.
  • Don’t hang out with people in gangs. You might know of some teens who are in gangs or who hang out with gang members and think, “They are a lot like me.” But, there are other ways to meet people you can identify with. If you hang out with people in or associated with gangs, there’s a good chance you will join a gang.
  • Don’t look like a gang member. Be aware of the colors and specific clothing styles, such as wearing bandanas or hats, that gangs in your area use as symbols of their loyalty. If you look like a gang member, someone might think you’re a real gang member, and you could be an innocent target of gang violence.
  • Think highly about yourself and the things you can do. Don’t put yourself down by thinking, “I’m a troublemaker” or “I can’t get along with anybody.”
  • Remember, you do have a choice. Most teens that live where gangs are active choose not to join gangs. If you are asked to join a gang but are afraid to say no, keep in mind that most teens are not forced into joining. Go to a trusted adult for help.
  • Don’t get physical when you disagree or have a problem with someone. Find peaceful solutions to working out conflicts.

What if you’re already in a gang — can you get out? arrow top

If you already made the choice to join a gang, you might wonder if it’s too late to get out. Actually, over half of gang members choose to leave within a year of joining. You can decide to leave too.

As a gang member, you have had to deal with some pretty harsh and ugly realities. Violence might be a normal part of your life. But having these experiences shows that you are tough — tough enough to make different, better choices for yourself. If you are strong enough for gang life, you are strong enough to go to school, take responsibility for your actions, and do good things for your community.

How do you leave a gang? arrow top

This really depends on your unique situation. It depends on how long you’ve been in the gang, what type of gang it is, and how close you live to where the gang hangs out. Walking away may be the best thing to do. It will be easier to do this if you haven’t been in the gang a long time. If you’ve been in the gang for years, it may be hard to avoid other gang members. You may even need to move to another city to leave the gang.

You have the inner strength and courage you need to get out, but you also need support from others. Turn to a parent/guardian, teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult, who can help you safely get out of your gang. Doing so is an important first step.

More resources arrow top

National Youth Gang Center

This information was reviewed by: Detective Kenneth Compher, Fairfax County, Virginia Gang Unit


Content last reviewed September 22, 2009
Page last updated August 24, 2018